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Indie Comics Spotlight: Johnnie Christmas and the importance of flaming swords and coffee
Johnny Christmas is a man of many talents. The artist and writer has found an incredible amount of success in the past seven years, starting with his first prominently published work for Dark Horse, Sheltered, a collaboration with writer Ed Brisson (New Mutants, Old Man Logan). Since then, Christmas has been invited to work on some incredible projects. Including Angel Catbird, a collaboration with best-selling sci-fi novelist Margaret Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale), and the Aliens 3 graphic novel, adapted from William Gibson’s shelved screenplay.
Growing up in Miami, Florida, Christmas remembers excitedly waiting for his dad to come home from his construction job, candy bars and comic books in tow. Little Johnnie was a massive fan of both The Flash and the X-Men, but the young artist didn’t even realize comics were sequential until he walked into his first comic book shop as a teenager. Around that same time, he discovered that he loved writing stories as much as drawing them. Firebug (Image), his first creator-owned project, is about a woman who embodies the spirit of a volcano to save her people. If Firebug is the story where Christmas found his own voice, then Tartarus, drawn by Jack Cole (The Unsound), is where it reverberates the loudest.
Tartarus is an expansive story about a small mining colony at the edge of the galaxy caught in the middle of an intergalactic war over the powerful liquid weapons they produce. When a miner warlord breaks out of prison, unleashing even more chaos, the Imperial Baxna Empire puts a stop to her. Years later, Tilde, an Imperial army cadet raised to fight against everything the resistance represents, discovers the truth of her lineage and the lengths the government will go to to protect a lie.
At the other end of the spectrum is Crema, illustrated by Dante Luiz, a quiet story about Esme, a barista who sees ghosts when she drinks too much coffee. She has her work cut out for her, however, when she falls for Yara, the elegant owner of a haunted Brazilian coffee plantation and together they try to save her farm from a ghost with a broken heart.
SYFY WIRE talked to Christmas about why he hasn’t worked for the Big Two yet, the importance of flaming swords, and why his mom is his source of inspiration.
You’re both a writer and an artist, but you handed off Tartarus’ art duties to Jack Cole. What was that like?
It was great. It's like the most fun game of telephone you will ever be able to play. I’ve referenced archetypes before, but I can use that in a way that inspires Jack, without beating him over the head with specifics. For instance, I wanted emotional specificity, and I wanted the story to be threaded together in a way that every action merited a reaction that was emotionally true. But in terms of how the world looked? I would just say, “I want a gleaming sword” or “I want a watery planet.” Or this tool should be able to do this.
Like Firebug, Tartarus is full of people who control liquid and fire. Are you a fan of elemental magic in fantasy stories?
Yeah, very much so. Especially when you're expanding a world that has a lot of complexity, like this one. Nature's elements are archetypes. There's nothing more understandable than an archetype. We all understand them. We all know them, we feel them. But interestingly enough, with Tartarus, the liquid weapons and the fiery sword were Jack's idea.
Does Tartarus take place in the future or in a parallel universe?
I wanted to leave it all open. I think that the assumption everyone makes is that it's the future. And … I want that to be the assumption.
The worldbuilding here is expansive. Can you break it down a bit for us?
So there are these two competing empires. There's the Baxna empire, and there's the Jurian empire, which is essentially a protectorate. And both parties want to destroy each other over the liquid weapons that Tartarus produces. This makes Tartarus a very valuable chess piece in this intergalactic war. But since the powers that be on Tartarus were double-dealing, an embargo was enforced, and everything went to hell. So it just became just like an impoverished war planet with this deadly material on it.
Once Tilde’s research reveals her lineage, she’s caught in the middle.
Yes, everybody comes to the same revelation about Tilde’s lineage at the same time. Both the empires must move quickly, and Tilde has to also determine what's going on around her quickly and act. Does she try to make things right with Baxna with this new knowledge? Or does she try to escape from Baxna, and as you can see she doesn’t have much of a choice.
Firebug, Tartarus, and even Crema have incredibly headstrong female characters. Who is your inspiration?
Honestly, I think about my mom a lot. Like she was one of the funniest, toughest, strongest people I've ever known. So when I think of a strong person, I think of my mom. She would walk into a situation and just exercise her will to get what she needed out of it. She was a force, maybe that's why it's so easy for me to write strong women characters.
Crema is also a much simpler story. Did you need a break, and how much do you love coffee now?
Yes! It's a much simpler story, isn't it? I came to coffee when I started doing Sheltered, when all of a sudden I had to produce a lot of stuff real fast. So me and coffee, we got to know each other really quickly.
Then, when I pitched Crema and we got the green light, I realized I needed to know a whole lot more about, like, all of it. From the production to consumption to, you know, different nations, how they consume and produce coffee, their particular histories with coffee.
There is a lot of real-world history woven into the background, isn’t there?
I really wish we had more than a 100 pages, because I really am interested in the history of coffee in Brazil. In South America, coffee is one of the industries that people continue to work in today, in less than ideal means, to produce. But of course, with 100 pages and a haunted love story, we could only kind of sort of spray a mist of these topics. Maybe one day I can explore that world as well.
Is there more than one love story hidden in Crema?
Yes, first it's a haunted love story about a barista who falls in love with a coffee plantation heiress. But her haunted farm makes the best coffee in the world because it's imbued with the emotions of a lovesick ghost who never made it back to his love. In return, she died waiting for him and all of their love went into the ground, into the coffee. But 100 years later that love is fading and the farm is dying as well.
What inspired the love story between Yara and Esme?
I'm not quite sure what inspired their specific love story, but I know I wanted opposites. From Esme's point of view, I wanted a character who felt invisible, who didn't feel seen. So much so that she can actually see the invisible world. She sees ghosts. And then you've got Yara, who's completely dazzling, and when she walks into a room, people see her immediately.
So I thought that would be super compelling to have those two people. Not just in a room having a conversation, but in a relationship. And what happens when that connection is almost taken away.
How did you team up with Dante Luiz as your artist?
An editor on the project who knew Dante pitched to me. [His work was great], and I was really happy to include a Brazilian artist. So I sent Dante two pitches. One was about coffee. And the other one was about tea, actually.
Looking at your career, you’ve been able to work on some incredible projects and stay outside of mainstream comics. Was that on purpose?
When I first started off in comics professionally I was honestly afraid of ... of getting a job like on Batman or something. Because when you're trying to discover your voice, or you are looking for it, you’re really unsure of yourself. So if I was plugged into the system of the “Big Two,” I was afraid that I might not be able to find my voice, because [I would be creating] someone else’s.
But I honestly like seeing how the Big Two machine works from the inside, and I'd be very open to it now. Because I have a lot more confidence in what I want to say and how I want to say it.
So what would you want to work on first? Maybe a Flash comic?
That would bring it full circle, wouldn’t it?
This interview has been edited for clarity.